The next time I hear that some angry group has started a riot, I'm going to take it with a giant spoonful of salt.
I was there in front of the Ministry of Foreign Affairs today, when hundreds of University of Liberia students took to the streets. They did it in support of their professors who are on strike until they get the 9 months of salary owed them.
Here's how events really unfolded, at least from where I stood:
The beginning of a peaceful protest. The students were chanting "No more rhetoric - we wan lehn! No more rhetoric - we wan lehn!" I took this picture from my car, intending to make a sad commentary about the students and the obviously deplorable state of education as evidenced by the way they talked. I didn't think I would see the group again, but a little later in the afternoon I had to go back in their direction.
Police were standing on the Capitol By-pass and redirecting cars to the Jallah Town Road. Not understanding what was going on, I drove past them and headed towards Tubman Boulevard, the main road (the only road) that goes past the University and all the way through Monrovia. Near the Mansion, Police tried to stop me again, but by then I could see the crowd up ahead and told them I wanted to go and take pictures.
Students held up placards and yelled out their convictions and pleas. A couple of memorable messages were "No University, No Liberia", and "Give Me Education or Give Me Death." I spoke first to the guy who had the "No University" placard. Tom T., a sophomore in Public Administration. He told me, very passionately, what the protest was all about and what he meant by his message: If Liberia's highest institution of learning does not get what it needs for education, Liberia will fail as a nation.
The arrival of some armed security personnel in vehicles with a mounted gun caused a change in the crowd. Students seemed to become more fired up, and some started addressing their concerns directly to the police, as if they caused the problem or could actually do something about it.
I didn't understand the show of force. Guns for ex-combatants demanding money, yes. But for students asking for a decent education??
The trouble started when the Nigerian UNMIL soldiers arrived and penetrated the crowd, unprovoked.
Fights and confusion broke out as bewildered students were pushed and beaten. I could not believe my eyes.
Students jumped over the fence and fled back to the University, a handful of them throwing stones and a glass bottle in anger.
As I walked away from the scene with another photographer and the last of the crowd, more officers rushed at us, one of them hitting my colleague's camera with a baton. Moments later, as the photographer was pointing out the culprit to other security personnel, a crazed, blood-thirsty UNMIL soldier came running up and assaulted him with his rifle - hit him with it quite viciously, no questions asked.
When I got back to town and heard that University students had "started a riot", I could only shake my head in sorrow.
I'm still floored by the behavior of the "Peacekeepers", but also very proud of the Liberia National Police Officers who for the most part were calm and respectful from beginning to end.